NOTE: If you’re already very familiar with chord notation, skip to the bottom of this article to see this chord notation system without explanations you may find unnecessary.
Over my 10 years of being both a music composer and music theorist, I’ve encountered a wide variety of chord notation styles. They fall into two categories: Roman Numeral Notation and Exact Chord Notation. Let me define those terms.
Roman Numeral Notation refers to labeling the chords based on the key the song or musical passage was written in using roman numerals to represent Ionian Mode scale degrees. In Roman Numeral Notation, there are generally 7 different triads (chords consisting of 3 notes), each having a relationship to the tonic triad, which is always a Roman Numeral of the number 1. There are two important reasons why Roman Numeral Notation is used. First reason is because it helps music theory analysts who have relative pitch map out relationships between chords. Second reason is a Roman Numeral Notation can be transposed into any key, regardless of the original key in which the song or musical passage was composed.
Exact Chord Notation refers to labeling the chords by their exact pitches. For example, if it’s a C Major triad (consisting of notes C, E, and G), it will probably be written as just C or perhaps as C Major. This kind of notation isn’t dealing with relationships between chords like Roman Numeral Notation. Instead, it’s telling you the exact pitches of each chord and the exact key in which the song or musical passage is written. This information is more difficult to transpose, so the Roman Numeral Notation is more suited to transposition. Meanwhile, if you want to exactly emulate a song in its original key, Exact Chord Notation is the best notation method for accomplishing that.
After seeing so many different methods of chord notation over the years, I’ve decided to create my own system, called the Branham Method Chord Notation. My intention is to pioneer a chord notation system designed to be universal, meaning it can be understood by musicians of all genres and music theorists alike. It’s designed to eliminate confusion so that everybody knows exactly what they’re reading in chord notation. There’s no ambiguity.
My hope is that the notation system I’ve designed will become the standard, accepted by most musicians and music theorists. It’s designed to be universal, so that it can be understood by everyone.
Both Types of Notation
Branham Method Chord Notation is divided into its Roman Numeral and Exact Chord forms. For this reason, it contains two ways to write a chord, depending on which of those two types of notations you’re using.
Specifying Key For Roman Numeral Notation
Branham Method Notation Method, in its roman numeral form, allows for an easy way to specify the key in which a song is written. Just name the key between two asterisks at the top before specifying the chords below that. For example:
If the key changes at any point, you can specify the new key in the same way. However, if the key is neither major (Ionian Mode) nor natural minor (Aeolian Mode), specify the closest Ionian Mode or Aeolian Mode key with the least accidentals corresponding to the different mode. If it’s C Lydian, for example, there’s only one accidental in the corresponding Ionian Mode, so just write: *C Major (Lydian)*. Make sure the roman numeral notations are written in reference to the notes of C Major, even though the musical passage or song is written in C Lydian. With mode mixture, the first key you mention is the key signature, but you write a slash after that, writing the mode being mixed with it afterwards, like this if you’re, for example, doing Parallel Minor Mode Mixture in the key of C: *C Major/CMinor*.
Major and Minor Chords
In Roman Numeral Notation, a major triad is written using a capital roman numeral representing the scale degree of the root note. For example, in the key of C Major, a G Major triad followed by a C Major triad would look like this: V-I. However, if it was D Minor, G Major, and C Major in the key of C Major, it would be written: ii-V-I. As you can see, the minor triad is written as a lowercase roman numeral while the major triads are written as uppercase roman numerals.
In Exact Chord Notation, a major chord is written using the capital letter that represents the root note. Meanwhile, a minor chord also uses the capital letter representing the note, but it adds a lowercase “m” to it. C Major would be written as: C. However, C Minor would be written as: Cm. The lowercase “m” lets you know it’s a minor chord instead of a major chord or different type of chord.
Flats and Sharps
In Roman Numeral Notation, the flats and sharps are written before the roman numeral representing the scale degree. In C Major, the note F# doesn’t exist, so an F# minor chord can be written as either #iv or bv. The F# root note in C Major can be viewed as a sharp subdominant (fourth scale degree) or a flat dominant (fifth scale degree), so it can be written either way. It will still be correct, as long as it specifies the correct root note.
In Exact Chord Notation, the flats and sharps are written after the letter that represents the root of the chord. However, if the chord isn’t a major chord, the sharps and flats are still written after the letter representing the root note, but before the character representing the chord type. For example, Ab Minor would be written as: Abm. Any modification to the letter note itself must be notated before specifying chord type. If there’s no specification, that means it’s a major chord, so Ab would represent an Ab Major triad (notes Ab, C, and Eb).
The formal notation for diminished triads is a degree symbol. However, a degree symbol cannot be found on any normal computer keyboard. For this reason, the Branham Method Notation System replaces that degree symbol with an asterisk.
In the key of C Major, with Roman Numeral Notation, a B diminished triad would be written as vii*. The asterisk tells us it’s a diminished triad and the roman numeral tells us the root note is the leading tone (or seventh scale degree). Diminished triads in Roman Numeral Notation are lowercase just like minor chords, but with an asterisk added.
With Exact Chord Notation, a B diminished triad would be written simply as B*. The letter tells us the root note of the chord while the asterisk tells us it’s a diminished triad. Very simple.
The formal notation for augmented triads is a plus sign. However, the Branham Method Notation System uses plus symbols in a different way, so the plus sign is replaced with a ^ sign. The upwards arrow is intuitive and easy to read. To “augment” something means to raise it, so the upwards arrow symbol ^ can tell us to augment a chord.
With Roman Numeral Notation, the root note of the augmented triad is specified by the roman numeral corresponding to its scale degree, but it’s capitalized. For example, G Augmented triad in the key of C Major would be written as V^.
With Exact Chord Notation, you write the root note, specify if it’s flat or sharp (or don’t specify if the note is neither flat nor sharp), then put the ^ symbol. G Augmented triad would be written as G^.
If your chord is a triad chord with extra notes added, you can use chord extension notations that specify the extra notes. If the chord extension has multiple extra notes, previous notes in that extension are implied. For example, in a C Major chord, a 9th chord means the notes C, E, G, Bb, and D. Notice how the Bb note is implied by the designation of a 9th chord. Same with an 11th chord, as the notes would be C, E, G, Bb, D, and F. In a 13th chord, the notes would be C, E, G, Bb, D, F, and A.
In C Major key with Roman Numeral Notation, you would write these chords as I7, I9, I11, and I13.
In Exact Chord Notation, you’d write these chords as C7, C9, C11, and C13.
The Major 7th Chord
For a major 7th chord, you can use the notation “maj7” in parentheses. In the key of C Major, Roman Numeral Notation would write that chord as I(maj7). In Exact Chord Notation, you’d write it as C(maj7). The reason why the “maj7” is in parentheses is to avoid any confusion in the case of a minor triad with that extension. You wouldn’t write a C Minor chord with the B note added as “Cmmaj7” as that would look like a typo. Instead, you’d write Cm(maj7).
Specific Chord Extensions
If your chord has a specific note added to it, you would write that using the parentheses “add” designation. In C Major, the C Major triad with the D note added to it can be written in two ways, depending on voicing. The first way is I(add2) and the second way is I(add9). The “add” designation tells you what specific notes to add. Similarly, in Exact Chord Notation, you’d write it as either C(add2) or C(add9).
However, if you’re adding multiple notes to the chord, you’d still use the add function, but separate the notes by a period. If the chord in C Major key is the notes C, E, G, D, and A, you’d write it as I(add9.13). This tells you to add the 9th and 13th notes to the major triad. In Exact Chord Notation, it works the same way, as you’d write C(add9.13). But, you would separate the “maj7” designation from the add designation by a comma before doing the “add” designation. If the notes are C, E, G, B, D, and A, you’d write C(maj7,add9.13.). If notes are C, E, G, Bb, D, and A, you’d write C9(add13). Again, the minor 7th is implied by the “9” designation.
Finally, if the added note is modified as sharp or flat, you would use the plus or minus signs to indicate that. If the notes are C, E, G, B, D, F#, Ab, you’d write C(maj7,add9.+11.-13). The plus or minus sign tells you how to modify the added note, with minus meaning lower it by one semitone and plus meaning raise it by one semitone.
Leaving Out Notes
If a chord is leaving out a note it would normally have, you would write that using the parentheses “no” designation. In C Major (or C Minor for that matter), if only the notes C and G are played, in Roman Numeral Notation that would be written as I(no3) and in Exact Chord Notation it would be written as C(no3). Similarly if in C Major, the notes are C and E, in Roman Numeral Notation that would be written as I(no5) and in Exact Chord Notation it would be written as C(no5).
In Roman Numeral Notation, a major or minor triad with no third is always capitalized since, without a third, it’s neither major nor minor chord anyway. In C Minor, if the notes are C and G, in Roman Numeral Notation that’s written as I(no3).
A minor chord with no fifth follows the same rules outlined earlier, so in C Minor, if the notes are C and Eb, Roman Numeral Notation would be i(no5) and Exact Chord Notation would be Cm(no5).
A power chord is a chord containing only the root and fifth, but no third. By definition, a power chord is neither major nor minor. Although you can use the “no” parentheses designation for these chords, another way to write these using the Branham Method is to write, in C Major with notes C and G, Roman Numeral Notation I(pow) and Exact Chord Notation C(pow).
Tritones are two notes that are 6 semitones apart. For example, the notes C and Gb are a tritone. In Roman Numeral Notation, in C Major, this would be lowercase roman numeral with “tri” in parentheses, like so: i(tri). In Exact Chord Notation, that would be C(tri).
However, you could also write a tritone by writing a chord as a diminished triad but writing “no3” in parentheses. This is more confusing than just specifying it as a tritone, though. In any case, you’d write that as i*(no3) or C*(no3). However, the confusion would come from the reader of the notation wondering what kind of “3” you’re excluding from the chord. Although it’s obviously a minor 3rd you’re excluding, the reader of the notation may not intuitively know this. So, it’s encouraged to use the “tri” parentheses designation just in case.
An “Arabic Triad” is my name for a tritone with a major third in the middle of it, for example the notes C, E, and Gb. That would be C(arab). However, if you feel like that’s “cultural” or whatever, you can simply write it as C(tri,add3). My reasoning for naming this “Arabic Triad” is from creating triads using Arabic modes/scales. These tritones with major thirds in the middle of them are common in Arabic modes.
In Roman Numeral Notation, “Arabic Triads” are always represented with a lowercase numeral.
A “Gypsy Triad” is my name for a tritone with a second in the middle of it, for example the notes C, D, and Gb. That would be C(gyp). However, if you feel like that’s “cultural” or whatever, you can simply write it as C(tri,add2). My reasoning for naming this “Gypsy Triad” is from creating triads using Gypsy modes/scales. These tritones with seconds in the middle of them are common in Gypsy modes.
In Roman Numeral Notation, “Gypsy Triads” are always represented with a lowercase numeral.
Comma versus Period
A comma in Branham Method Chord Notation is a separation of multiple designations of a single chord, meaning it separates each parentheses designation from each other. A period is a separation of multiple items of the same parentheses designation.
A Suspension Chord means one note (usually the 4 or 2) isn’t fully resolved to the chord in question. In C Major, let’s say we have two chords, one having notes G, C, and D, the next chord having notes G, B, and D. Roman Numeral Notation would be V(sus4)-V. Exact Chord Notation would be G(sus4)-G.
If the chord resolves to something in the same key in which the musical passage is written, the Roman Numeral Notation is the same as it would normally be. However, if the resolution of this suspension is different from the key in question, you can change the lowercase or uppercase roman numeral accordingly. This isn’t a requirement, but it’s two different ways you can write the same two chords if one is a “sus” chord and the next is the resolution of the “sus” chord in a different key.
If the chord has multiple suspension notes (i.e., sus4 and sus2 at the same time), you can write that in two ways. The easiest way, maintaining the first example key and notes, would be V(sus.chain)-V in Roman Numeral Notation and G(sus.chain)-G in Exact Chord Notation. However, the “hard” way to write this might be V(sus4.2)-V or G(sus4.2). I think the “chain” designation is better because “sus4.2” might be mistaken for playing both those notes at the same time, which is normally not the case.
The “sus.chain” designation means it’s a chain suspension, which is a suspension that navigates between multiple notes before resolving to the destination chord.
A suspension chord isn’t required to resolve to its destination chord, so in that situation, the destination chord is only theoretical, not reality. You’d still write the chord as a suspension chord using this notation system, but it would simply not be followed up by any kind of resolution. That’s the only difference.
Fully Diminished Chords
The way to write a fully diminished chord is by using the “full” parentheses designation. For example, in C Major, the notes B, D, F, and Ab would be written as vii*(full) in Roman Numeral Notation. In Exact Chord Notation, that would be written as B*(full).
A slash chord is any chord in which the bassline note is playing a different note than the root note. This is notated by a “/” symbol after the regular chord notation and all parentheses designations that may correspond to it.
In Roman Numeral Notation, in C Major, an E Minor chord played in 2nd inversion would be written as iii/VII. The numeral after the “/” symbol indicates the Ionian scale degree played in the bassline.
In Exact Chord Notation, the same chord specified above would be Em/B. So, the note after the “/” symbol is the exact note the bassline is playing.
Normal Chord Inversions
Both normal chord inversions (1st and 2nd inversions) can be notated using a parentheses of “1st” or “2nd”. With an extended chord, you can use “3rd”, “4th”, “5th”, etc. However, the Slash Chords method is easy to understand across all genres of musicians and music theorists, so I’d recommend using slash chord notation instead of inversion designation. This especially applies to chords where there is one extra note, but only the bassline is playing that note. For example, in C Major, the notes are C, E, G, and D, but only the bassline is playing the D note. So, in Roman Numeral Notation, that would be I/II and, in Exact Chord Notation, that would be C/D.
Any time the bassline note is different from the root note of the chord, you should notate it as a slash chord to avoid any possible confusion.
X Chord Notation
If you feel like there’s no way to characterize the type of chord you’re dealing with, you can use an “X” in place of the roman numeral or root note. For example, if the notes are C, Gb, D, and Ab, you can use X(C,D,Gb,Ab) to specify all specific notes in the chord. This method should be used sparingly, but if you have no other option, opt for the “X” designation.
Branham Method Notations (Simple Form)
*Closest Major or natural Minor Key* = Key Musical Passage or Song Is In
Although the first key written in the asterisks is your key signature, a mode that has no key signature, such as Dorian Mode or Melodic Minor Mode, would be written in parentheses. Just make sure the key signature key is the closest traditional key to that mode with the least number of accidentals, but with a matching starting note. In other words, *A Minor(Dorian)* is saying A Dorian, not D Dorian. No want there to be no confusion about the starting note of the mode you’re in. For mode mixture, key signature key still comes first, but mixed mode comes after a slash, like *C Major/C Minor*.
Basic Roman Numeral Notation:
Capital Roman Numeral Alone (i.e., IV) = Major Chord
Lowercase Roman Numeral Alone (i.e., vi) = Minor Chord
b Before Roman Numeral (i.e., bVI) = Root Lowered 1 Semitone
# Before Roman Numeral (i.e., #IV) = Root Raised 1 Semitone
In Exact Chord Notation, major triad is written using just the letter of the root note, so in an E Major triad, you’d write just E. For E Minor triad, you’d write an “m” after the root note, like Em. Finally, in Exact Chord Notation, you write the flat or sharp of a root note (if it has one) after the letter of the note, but before chord type (if it isn’t a major chord), for example Ab Minor would be written Abm.
Capital Numeral With ^ Afterwards = Augmented Chord
Lowercase Numeral With * Afterwards = Diminished Chord
As with a minor chord, you write a sharp or flat before the augmented or diminished triad symbol in Exact Chord Notation, such as Gb Augmented as Gb^ and Gb Diminished as Gb*.
Capital Numeral With Parentheses = Extended Major Chord, Suspended Chord, Chord With Missing Notes, or Power Chord
Lowercase Numeral With Parentheses = Extended Minor Chord, Tritone, Arabic Triad, Gypsy Triad
In Exact Chord Notation, the root note is always represented using a capital letter, never lowercase.
Special X Notation:
Capital Letter X with Parentheses = Exact Notes In Chord Separated By Commas
Additions To Roman Numerals:
7 = Minor Seventh Note is Added To Chord
9 = Same as 7, but with Ninth Note Added
11 = Same as 9, but with Eleventh Note Added
13 = Same as 11, but with Thirteenth Note Added
maj7 = Major Seventh Note is Added To Chord (only in parentheses)
^ = Shorthand for Augmented Chord
* = Shorthand for Diminished Chord
In Exact Chord Notation, these work the same way. Just remember to write a sharp or flat and/or chord type before the extension, such as Bbm9.
pow = Power Chord (see above section)
tri = Tritone (see above section)
arab = Arabic Triad (see above section)
gyp = Gypsy Triad (see above section)
full = Fully Diminished Chord
sus0 = Suspended Chord, but replace zero with a real note number
sus.chain = Chain Suspension of a Chord
add0 = Add Note to a Chord, but replace zero with the note number; use a period to separate multiple extension notes
add+0 = Add Note to a Chord that is raised by a semitone, but replace zero with the note number; use a period to separate multiple extension notes
add-0 = Add Note to a Chord that is lowered by a semitone, but replace zero with the note number; use a period to separate multiple extension notes
no0 = Exclude Notes from a Chord, but replace zero with the note number excluded; use a period to separate multiple removed notes
, = Separation of multiple parentheses abbreviations within one chord
. = Separation of multiple items of the same parentheses abbreviation
In Exact Chord Notation, these parentheses designators are the same.
Bassline Notations After the / of a Chord Notation:
inv = Inverted Harmony; this is only used for two note harmonies
1st = First Inversion
2nd = Second Inversion
3rd = Third Inversion
Capital Roman Numeral Notation: Specific Note In Bassline
In Exact Chord Notation, the specific note played by the bassline comes after the slash, so E Minor in first inversion would be E/G.